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Trailer: Pixar’s Soul

From Pete Docter, the writer/director of Pixar's most ambitious and imaginative films (Inside Out, Up, Monsters Inc.) comes another existential rumination, with voice work by Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey and Daveed Diggs.
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Abominable

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Abominable starts with our hero, Everest, the folkloric Yeti, escaping from a scientific facility and finding itself hiding out in downtown Shanghai. Everest soon bumps into Yi (Bennet), a grief stricken girl who dreams of travelling through China, and she gets her wish when along with two other kids they head across the vast and beautiful Chinese countryside to help Everest return home, all the while being pursued by an eccentric millionaire, scientists and commandos.

If you took a cynical reading of this latest Dreamworks animated feature, you could deduce that with the rapidly growing Chinese market for movies (it has the most cinemas of any nation, and growing, and is predicted to end 2019 as the biggest market in the world for theatrical releases, eclipsing the long-held US), that a Hollywood studio begins with an idea that will allow them to not only appeal to that market, but better still, engage their industry in working on the project for a fraction of the price that you would pay a Western crew.

Additionally, and most crucially, China limits the number of Western cinema releases seen on the big screen, so this co-production between Dreamworks and Pearl Studio guarantees that Abominable will be released to much fanfare.

But why be cynical, when this is showbusiness after all, and better still, some of the most creative and accomplished artworks throughout history have worked on a restricted canvas, be it censorship, budget or otherwise.

The computer animation in Abominable is what we’ve come to expect from Dreamworks (Croods, Trolls, Boss Baby, How to Train Your Dragon, etc), however, what is new here is the setting, with the streets of modern Shanghai and regional China, along with The Everest, offering something that we have not seen before in such a mainstream animated film, making the story in turns engrossing and wondrous. The same applies to the wholly Asian cast of characters, portrayed just like any Western character would have been, with little cultural stereotyping or clichés. The magical aspects in the film don’t quite match the transcendence of classics such as Kubo and the Two Strings – perhaps they should have considered less Coldplay and more class, but you can’t have everything.

Ultimately, the core message about leaving nature alone more than makes up for any shortcoming, and what you get is a film that reaches close to peak entertainment for kids and adults alike.

 
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Angry Birds Assemble

Producer John Cohen (right) and Director Thurop Van Orman (left) open up about The Angry Birds Movie 2, which sees the birds and pigs team up to defeat a new enemy.
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Ne Zha

animation, Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The best kind of cinematic underdog stories are the ones that go beyond the borders of a cinema screen. A debut feature for its director Jiaozi and his animation studio Chengdu Coco Cartoon, with nary a name-brand actor in sight, Ne Zha has already become one of the biggest commercial successes for a China-born animated film.

Of course, in the era of Avatar and Disney-helmed tentpoles, monetary gains can only push a feature so far. Good thing, then, that this is the kind of production that outright demands that kind of audience pull.

For an East Asian product, the visuals are all kinds of American influenced. It has the round bounciness of Dreamworks (and, let’s be honest, the same sophomoric sense of humour in places), the lighting effects and facial expressions of Disney/Pixar, and the energetic finesse of Laika.

However, rather than feeling like a hodge-podge of familiar elements in a cynical attempt at international notoriety, all of these elements come together astoundingly well.

Everything from the quieter moments of the titular Ne zha kicking around a jianzi, to the action scenes that make Kung Fu Panda look like a test run, are rendered in stylised but highly effective fashion, making every second feel like a glorious panorama unto itself.

As for the story, it taps into regional shenmo storytelling (basically stories to do with gods and demons fighting each other) to tell the tale of Ne Zha, a child born from a demonic seed that is doomed to die at three years old from a divine lightning blast. Wielding mischievous child for all its worth, Lü Yanting imbues the title character with vibrant energy, while also selling the more emotional moments with uncanny poignancy.

And opposite him, we have Han Mao as the dragon prince Ao Bing, whose destiny is tied directly to Ne Zha, leading them both on a path that could see their world and themselves destroyed. It’s quite impressive that, even with very little dialogue, the animation is just that damn good that Ao Bing makes for the most emotionally intense character in this entire affair.

In-between the fight scenes, the jaw-dropping visuals, the familial drama and the occasional spurt of potty humour, it is at its heart a story about fate in a world where mortals rub shoulders with beings of ultimate power. It follows a similar line of thought as Eli Craig’s Little Evil in how it examines the notion of a demonic child meant to be the end of everything, and asks a simple question: Says who? It breaks down the idea of predetermined fate and turns its own cheekiness into a showing of strength and heaven-shaking defiance.

Through the use of familiar ideas and narrative tropes, both foreign and domestic, Ne Zha spins a yarn about prejudice – the mountains it creates and the sheer personal power that can shift them into the sea. And with how far Jiaozi came to create this, it’s hard not to think that he’s shattered a few mountains for himself.

 
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Trailer: The Addams Family

From the makers of Sausage Party, but don't hold that against them, here's the latest crack at the cult characters The Addams Family, which should be a financial bullseye if the box office for the Hotel Transylvania films is anything to go by.
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The Lion King

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Even the most Disney agnostic of cinema audiences are likely familiar with The Lion King. The 1994 animated feature remains one of the House of Mouse’s most beloved works, and is a masterclass in storytelling, style and emotion. That’s not a bad effort for what essentially amounts to Hamlet retold with some songs and cartoon carnivores. Since Disney seems intent on turning all of their animated features into “live action” concerns, it was inevitable that we’d get to this mane event, and the studio seemingly failure-proofed it. First up, director Jon Favreau – the bloke who directed the surprisingly solid live action The Jungle Book in 2016 – helms the piece. Follow that up with a staggeringly excellent voice cast that includes Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, John Oliver, Beyonce Knowles-Carter and freakin’ James Earl Jones and you’ve got a sure winner on your hands, right? So why is the end product so weirdly flat?

For those not in the know, The Lion King tells the tale of Simba (JF McCrary/Donald Glover), a young cub who leaves the Pridelands – the domain over which he is destined to one day rule – after the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones). Not realising he has been manipulated by his jealous uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) into believing Mufasa’s death was his fault, Simba slinks off in disgrace and becomes a shiftless hippie with Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and Timon (Billy Eichner). You can probably guess where it goes from there, and to be honest there’s nothing really wrong with the story; it worked in 1994 and it works now. No, The Lion King just feels… off. The animation, while competent and slick, never manages to graze very far outside The Uncanny Valley, and it’s difficult to connect emotionally with furry animal friends who look just a bit too stiff and dead-eyed to be credulous.

Worse still is when the animals, who all look borderline photorealistic, burst into song, which feels more like an acid trip gone horribly wrong while watching a David Attenborough doco than a joyous expression of musical exposition. It’s not all bad, mind you, Pumbaa and Timon manage to inject a little fun into the proceedings and James Earl Jones’ vocal delivery has lost none of its gravitas. And yet, for all of the many positives attached to this project, it just doesn’t take off and consequently feels like an overlong slog through the savanna. Maybe kids will find something to latch onto here, but most of the adults attending will sadly not be feeling the love tonight.

 
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Dragon Ball Super: Broly

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The latest feature-length instalment of one of the most ubiquitous, beloved and memeable anime franchises out there, Broly is basically a best-of-both-worlds situation. It takes the endearingly goofy tone of Battle of Gods and the large-scale action chops of Resurrection ‘F’ and combines them in a way that retains all of the positives and burns away most of the negatives.

The sense of humour on display here is so on-point, it’s staggering. Not since the legendary DBZ Abridged series has this material been able to generate this many belly laughs, largely thanks to Sean Schemmel as the ever-loving goofball Goku and Jason Douglas as Beerus, the destroyer god who just wants to nap without being interrupted. It’s all character-derived stuff, leaning less on the BoG slapstick, and through that, it turns out effective as well as melding well with the more action-oriented moments.

When it comes time for Goku and the eponymous Broly to start throwing down (the bulk of the film is that fight), it results in glorious displays of widespread destruction. The intensity and high-flash line work in the animation is on the same tier as Asura’s Wrath, right down to the amount of terrain-scorching that goes on; looking like the result of two gods brawling with each other. It can get quite hectic in places and admittedly a little difficult to entirely make out, but between the raw strength at work and the adaptability of the fighters involved, it makes for well-earned chaos.

It even features solid dramatic touches connected to Broly’s character. Shown through an impressively-nimble flashback sequence, which gives plentiful background history for the characters and story at large, he is depicted as a rather tragic antagonist. Born with immeasurable power, exiled out of jealousy and raised to exact revenge, Broly’s first official entry into the franchise sets him up as the yang to Goku’s yin.

Both are exceptionally powerful, both were sent away from their home planet, and both have a natural tendency for friendship rather than aggression. But because of their different upbringing, what we get is a rather point-blank depiction of the classic ‘nature vs. nurture’ dilemma, showing how Broly being raised as a weapon of vendetta turned him into a psychologically-scarred and damaged soul. It adds an unexpected touch of unease to the action scenes, knowing that Broly was pushed into them by intents other than his own. It’s kind of sad in its own way.

Considering this and the previous films exist out of a potential need for creator Akira Toriyama to redeem his own franchise after the baffling Westernisation of Dragon Ball: Evolution, this represents the absolute accomplishment of that goal. A very funny, very thrilling and even occasionally moving effort that gives the long-time fans more of what they love, and a sufficient entry point for newcomers to get in on the fun.

Photo credit: ©BIRD STUDIO/SHUEISHA ©2018 DRAGON BALL SUPER THE MOVIE PRODUCTION COMMITTEE